Thursday, 9 July 2020

Movie Review: Easy Living (1937)


A screwball comedy and romance built on a series of misunderstandings, Easy Living enjoys high energy levels but too often strays into excessive overacting.

Wealthy bank tycoon J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) first insults his son John Ball Jr. (Ray Milland), then has an argument with his wife Jenny (Mary Nash) and throws her new expensive fur coat off the balcony. It lands on the head of the penniless Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), ruining her hat. She tries to return the coat, but J.B. insists she keep it and helps her buy a new hat. 

Rumours immediately swirl that Mary is J.B.'s new mistress. Hotelier Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) spots an opportunity to revive the fortunes of his flagging luxury hotel, and invites Mary to stay at the Imperial Suite for the pure publicity value. She is bewildered but accepts, and soon meets John, not knowing he is J.B.'s son. Additional false assumptions are piled on, eventually leading to romance and frantic stock market trading.

Filled with over-the-top physical comedy bordering on juvenile farce, Easy Living walks a fine line between smart and silly. The script by Preston Sturges is punctuated by people falling down the stairs, tripping over each other, smashing into furniture, getting into fights, and in one instance, a massive fracas at an automat fast food restaurant. Director Mitchell Leisen fully invests in the slapstick, with the resulting vitality and absurdity competing for prominence.

The script enjoys a modest level of sharp wit, and is mostly concerned with poking fun at pompous rich people grappling with the consequences of wagging tongues and profit seekers. Mary's spectacular ascent from a nobody to the buzz of town, through no intention or action of her own, is wry commentary on fate's little games. 

The actors are encouraged to match the madcap shenanigans and deliver loud and broad performances. Edward Arnold shouts his way through the entire movie and gets progressively more tiresome. Leisen also offers too much of Luis Alberni's smarminess and mangled English as he tries to cheese his way towards salvaging his hotel business.

The exception is Jean Arthur, perfectly cast as the eye of the storm. She maintains an even keel as Mary Smith, unaware of the gossip and innuendo storm unleashed by a fur coat landing on her head. Easy Living remains watchable thanks to her grounded performance.

The romance elements are relatively tepid, John Ball Jr. and Mary brought together at that automat fiasco then finding a nominal spark. Ray Milland enjoys a few decent moments but is largely overshadowed by the louder characters and disappears for long stretches. Instead of building towards a romantic climax, the script is distracted by a much less interesting frenetic stock trading sub-quest.

Easy Living is easy to like, and also relatively easy to leave.






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